Zoo Animals

or, Modern Life is Rubbish

Which one has it better, the lion in the wild or the lion at the zoo? On paper, there’s no question the lion at the zoo has it made. It’s sheltered from the elements. It has a team of veterinarians on hand in case it gets sick or injured or even if it just needs grooming. It doesn’t have to do any hunting for its food; it just waits around until zookeepers toss it a healthy, balanced meal. Everything it needs is taken care of.

So why don’t we just go out and capture every lion in the wild and put them all in zoos? Isn’t that the humane thing to do? Of course not. Everyone who has ever seen a nature documentary knows that however much the zoos have going for them on paper, lions aren’t supposed to live like that.

The lion in the wild is a majestic beast. The king of all he surveys, the ruthless killer who spreads terror to all creatures who spy her prowling in the tall grass of the savanna. The lions you see at the zoo are a sad echo of the ones you see being narrated by David Attenborough or Lorne Greene. Or whoever’s doing Nature on PBS these days. The zoo lions seem sad, or confused, or more than anything bored out of their magnificently maned heads.

Because life for the lion isn’t supposed to be unceasing ease and comfort. The life of a lion is supposed to be a struggle. It’s a feast of a gazelle that was brought down with your mighty paws, bringing to an end days or weeks of hunger and privation. It’s a life of fear, danger, triumph, sorrow, joy.

But the thing I’ve decided is that humans are living just as sterile and unnatural existence as zoo animals. Actually, I suspect our existence is way more sterile and unnatural than the zoo animals. It’s just that we don’t exactly have any nature shows that depict how humans are supposed to live.

I think people have an underlying instinct about these things. If you see a thirty-five year old guy living in his parents’ basement, mooching cigarette money off his girlfriend, and spending most of his waking hours playing video games, most people understand that, whatever else you want to say about his lifestyle, he is not living human existence to its fullest. Most people won’t say, “Well, gosh, he seems happy and he’s certainly well-fed and his stress levels are very low.” People just know that there’s more to life than that, in the same way that most people just know it isn’t right to capture all lions and put them in zoos, even if they can’t quite name any particular reason why not.

Granted, I might be wrong about all this. Since there’s no way to compare how we are to some hypothetical “how we should be”, it’s possible that modern life, when you balance its pros and cons, is really the optimal kind of living people could have. On the other hand, what we see today is a rampant increase in depression, neuroses, malaise, and people shuffling through life in an aimless struggle for meaning and identity.

This is why I don’t put too much stock into statistics about people’s quality of life. It’s all zoo animal statistics. Granted we’ve had undeniable technological progress that has made people’s lives better in some dimensions, but it seems most progress, certainly in the last 40 years, has either not improved people’s sense of purpose or wellbeing, or have actively made people’s lives less rich and fulfilling.

We have mobility, which we use to cut ties with friends and family and isolate ourselves. We have constant breakthroughs in medicine, most of which just ends up letting people suffer through the consequences of their overindulgent and sedentary lifestyles. We have all the entertainment you could want, most of which seems to be dedicated to numbing people from their existence.

And I think this is causing some serious pain for people. Everything about their life seems wonderful and yet they and everyone they know feel this deep emptiness inside. And since it doesn’t seem to have any particular cause, people’s minds search for something obvious that is wrong, which even if trivial is at least visible and tangible. But then this gets lampooned with the hastag #firstworldproblems, which is shorthand for “Your life is awesome; shut up and stop complaining.”

Granted there’s a lot to recommend modern life in the First World. Neolithic life, as far as we know, seems to have been fairly brutal. And a quick read-through of The Congo War, for instance, will make everyone count their blessings. (Low-end estimated deaths, 2.7 million, roughly the population of Nevada. This in a country 1/3 the size of the US.)

But I think it’s possible to be thankful for the good things in modern existence — indoor plumbing seems pretty cool and I do like that the threat of genocide is fairly trivial — while still acknowledging that what we have instead is sterile and unnatural. We aren’t supposed to be living like this.

Winter Memory

Since my return, I’ve found the winters in St. Louis to be harder on me than winters in Detroit. Probably because, unlike St. Louis, I gave the Detroit winters the respect they deserve, and spent most of the fall preparing for them, taking cold showers, wearing short sleeves longer than was comfortable. All with the goal of building up my tolerance.

And it worked! I found the cold didn’t bother me. One night, I think it was in January, I went to the gym, and stopped by Kroger for some item we were out of. It was 20 was wearing no coat, a fleece hoodie, and gym shorts. No long pants. And very short socks. This older woman sees me in the parking lot, shakes her head in bemusement at my unseasonable attire and says, “Only in Michigan!”

If I told her I was from Oklahoma, she probably wouldn’t have believed me.

Famous J Breaks Down Christmas Carols

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Most people only sing the first verse, and bypass the succeeding verses when the song transforms into increasingly menacing demands for fig pudding. I yield to no one in my love for figs and their magical colon-cleansing properties. But at the same time, I’m willing to take “no” for an answer.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

After seven days of fruit trees, rings, and an assortment of birds, the true love resorts to human slavery. Or maybe just rents the people out for the day. It’s not clear. You know, it’s possible the reason the assortment of birds didn’t work is that the narrator doesn’t like birds. Instead of maids a-milking, maybe did you consider eight lapdogs? Or eight key lime pies? Who doesn’t love pie?

Little Drummer Boy

I’m assuming whoever wrote this was never around an infant. There are things you’re allowed to do around newborns; playing the drums is not one of them. Anyone who starts playing a drum around a baby is liable to get his drumsticks taken away and beaten with them. This goes double if the baby is also our Lord and Savior.

Good King Wenceslas

According to the song “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen”. Last time I checked the Feast of Stephen is the 26th of December. I disqualify this as a Christmas carol, although I suppose this counts as a Boxing Day carol.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Reindeer are assholes.

Frosty the Snowman

Honestly, not a fan of this song nearly as much as Rudolph. Probably because there’s nothing fun to yell out in the middle of it, such as “like Monopoly!” However, I do like it when it’s sung in the TV special by Jimmy Durante. I suspect I’d like about anything sung by Jimmy Durante. Too bad he didn’t live long enough to do a tribute to The Smiths. I suspect he could have given us all a new appreciation of “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”.

Meditations on the Nature of Power

Power is a fascinating and terrifying subject. I’ve stumbled upon some insights which I’m pretty sure aren’t original to me, but I’m not going to let that stop me from declaring them a law and naming them after myself.

LeBlanc’s First Law of Power Any time an organization acquires power, the organization stops being about its original mission and starts being about the acquisition and maintenance of power.

People sometimes get this idea that “If only some disinterested party X were in charge, they would work better than the cretins and sociopaths running things now.”

This is a good idea in theory, except it assumes that “disinterested party X” will remain the same once they were in charge. This is never the case. There’s a certain kind of person who A) has a nose for where power is and B) is willing to do what it takes to acquire that power.

Generally the kinds of people who are interested in power are a lot more likely to end up running things than the people who just want to keep their heads down and get their jobs done. And once they get control over the organization, they begin to steer it towards its expansion (regardless of whether or not it’s already big enough) and increasing its influence.

A classic example of this is the Catholic church in the Renaissance. While ostensibly about preserving the spiritual welfare of the faithful, it became the most powerful organization in Europe. And you ended up with Popes like Alexander VI, who had many faults but being overly concerned about his flock’s immortal souls is not one of them.

Or take the various revolutionaries, in France, in the Soviet Union, in China. The kinds of people who infested those organizations tended to be way less about creating a classless society and more about having the power to have someone executed. For the good of the Revolution, of course.

This is never a stable situation, though. Since there was some mission, some reason the organization became powerful in the first place. Once it loses that, when the organization falters, the power-seeking people abandon the place and the next generation fails to take their place.

Which brings us to…

LeBlanc’s Second Law of Power: Any organization dedicated to power will only be useful as long as it’s powerful.

Let’s say, for instance, the powerful organization is a large automaker. We’ll call this organization General Cars or GC. And through a combination of design genius, groundbreaking marketing — effectively inventing the concept of the brand as we know it — GC became a colossus.

Given a certain size, it purchased — or demanded — the ear of people in government, and used that influence to insulate itself from competitive pressure. And young, ambitious people wanting to make a career for themselves begin to fill the ranks and work their way into management.

But ultimately, this can only last as long as it continues to make cars that people want to buy, and convincing the people to buy them at a decent price. If one day the company starts hitting hard times, you suddenly discover the people running the place really have no idea how to turn the place around, since they didn’t get to where they are by understanding the car-buying public or designing kickass vehicles but by learning how to climb the GC corporate ladder.

And as GC management beings to retire, the next generation is not there to fill their ranks, since no sane person under the age of 50 considers GC to be a plum place to work. They’re all out in Silicon Valley. And a death spiral ensues.

Although I suspect a similar dynamic is unfolding in Silicon Valley as well. Ten years ago, a place like Google had a ton of money and was working on the coolest things in town. Consequently, it filled up with very smart people who wanted to work with other very smart people on cool things.

But now, every Organization Kid emerging from the bowels of the Ivy League wants to work for Google. Not so much because they want to work on cool things but because it’s the place to be. I would suspect some number of them make it. And what was the last really cool thing Google made?

I would imagine something similar is happening at Apple, which, unless I’m mistaken, is losing its mojo. Maybe the iWatch will jump-start things. Or maybe it’ll one day be known as the “Newton for the wrist”.

I suppose we shall see.

A brief digression on the nature of power

Power is the ability to bend reality to conform to your idea of how things ought to work. Someone once likened power to the eponymous Ring in Lord of the Rings. It seduces you; it tells you what you want to hear. Sometimes it outright lies to you. But once you have it, you’ll do whatever you can to keep it.

And maybe you think you’re like Samwise, that you can handle the power and not let yourself go full Gollum.

The thing with power, it doesn’t advertise its existence, and people who have it don’t always walk around letting everyone know about it. At least not in this country. You’ll hear really benign phrases like “make a difference” or maybe “make the world a better place”.

But… make a difference for whom? Who gets to decide if the world is getting “better” or what’s justified to get it there?

Or perhaps you’ll hear someone wanting to “hold people in power accountable”. But again, who is to be held accountable? Who gets to decide what the criteria for accountability is? Accountable to whom, exactly? “The People”? Who gets to decide what “The People” ought to be caring about?

And at the risk of being pedantic, all organizations need power. GC needs the power to get inside the brain of someone in the car-buying public. I’m talking about general power-for-power’s-sake.

Flip Phone – Week One

Here’s my update after a week of dropping the iPhone for the generic Samsung flip phone:

I have not stopped being online entirely, but I have curtailed it massively. It’s like when you get a cast on your left hand, you don’t realize how much you’re using it until it’s gone. I keep finding thirty second snatches of time throughout the day when I instinctively want to grab the phone and stare blankly, only to discover that it’s not there.

As it is, instead of staring at my phone, I just end up staring off into the distance. Hopefully that’s an improvement. In any case, while I find life without a phone to be a bit disorienting, I do feel somewhat more connected with the world around me.

Apparently in the boys’ vocabulary, that “phone” means “iPhone”. What I have is a “cell phone”. I also learned that for the boys, all phone screens are touch screens. They all took turns looking at, tapping the screen, and when it didn’t do anything, they declared it “boring”, and handed it back to me.

Which is of course fine with me.

The thing I miss the most from the iPhone is the fact that it had all my music on it. I spent a whole day listening to FM radio and I found the experience so awful I considered pulling the plug. But then I remembered the phone has a port for an SD card.

So I got a 16GB micro SD card and put some of my favorite albums and mixtapes. This has been a welcome experience, ironically since the UI on the phone’s music player is not nearly as easy to use as the one on the iPhone. So I find myself more willing to stick with a song before skipping it. Whereas on the iPhone, if I got bored with a song for 1/1000th of a second, it was onto the next song.

The most common reaction from people when people find out that I voluntarily decided to give up the smart phone is bafflement. “Why? Why would you just decide to give up your iPhone?”

I really don’t have a good answer for this. I’m not sure what I was expecting or hoping for. Maybe I wasn’t expecting anything. I just got the sense that life is not supposed to be spent staring at a screen the size of a slice of American cheese. And while I still don’t quite feel as plugged into life, I get the sense that this is the right thing to do.

So for now, the experiment continues!

Flip Phone

Helga, the iPhone 5, has had a questionable battery for a while. I had spent the last few weeks trying to convince myself it was worth it to upgrade. Then I decided it was really good timing for me to be downgrading.

So I got a flip phone. A Motorola.

I decided a while ago that the smart phone is a net-negative in my life. Sure, it’s really convenient and saves me considerable time and hassle. And what do I do with that free time that my smart phone has generously saved me? I screw around on my phone.

I don’t know about you folks, and with apologies to everyone who has generously befriended me, but I have yet to spend more than five minutes on Facebook and thought, “Man, that was a really good use of my time. I’m glad I did that!”

Meanwhile, I can feel that I’m losing my ability to interact with human beings as human beings. The kids are draining and kind of frazzling at times, but I suspect I would find them easier to manage if I were giving them 100% of my attention. Or whatever percentage of my attention I can spare after a full day of work.

And since I’m the image of what a grown-up is supposed to be like for four boys, I’d like them to have some better idea about what life is like as an adult than “Mail it in on reality and stare mutely at a screen.”

Ultimately I think my online enjoyment peaked around 2003, maybe. Online marketing was still reeling from the Dotcom bust and the commercialization of ones online self was still in its infancy. I felt much less like a binary representation of a wallet. Or a vote.

Anyway, the phone arrives tomorrow. I’m taking this as the opportunity to dramatically curtail my time online. Just not having the Internet in my pocket should help on that, although I recall thinking in 2003 that I was probably spending too much time online and should really just read more books.

I’ll keep y’all abreast of how it turns out.

Back for Now

I’ve been meaning to start writing for a while. Like some form of writing longer than a tweet or status update. Of course, life keeps happening and the status update is a good way to vent the creative steam sometimes. But it’s very limiting and words have been building up with nowhere to go.

So I’ll be writing here again. Starting with a story about me giving up the smart phone.

The Fountainhead

Man, where to start with this thing…

If you haven’t read it, The Fountainhead is about Howard Roark, an architect who spends 800 or so interminable pages pitting his genius and individualism against the forces of mediocrity and collectivism. I’d go into details, but really that’s about it.

As a book, it was deeply flawed.

First off, every single character of any importance is a complete sociopath. Occasionally they’ll use phrases like “love”, but whatever is being described doesn’t seem to be an emotion in the conventional sense but more like an outward expression of some kind of ethical premise.

There’s no actual dialog in here. No real human talks like any of these people. Nobody ever sounds tired or angry or misspeaks in any way. Everyone makes the most meticulously-calibrated statements, and you end up with two characters taking turns reciting essay-length disquisitions for 20 pages or so.

And those are the Important People. The unimportant people are barely two-dimensional. Comic book villains’ henchmen have more depth of character than most secondary characters. It’s clear that Rand has no use for any of those people. It’s also clear that those people constitute about 99.999997% of the world’s population.

Things get even worse when society at large is being described. Basically you take these flat non-entities and… now there’s a bunch of them. That’s not how society works. A big group of people, even dull people, take on a character of its own, with its own logic and its own decision-making. It’s the difference between a bee and a swarm.

But not in the world of The Fountainhead. In that world, it’s just a collection of non-people who suddenly start doing things because Someone Important made them do it.

I suppose some of this is inevitable. There are two goals for this book at odds with each other: tell a story and send a message. You can’t do both of those things well. Thus in any situation where she could add a bit of reality or make the message more explicit, Rand chose the message every time.

Real people, even heroes, are fallible. They act petty and hold grudges, they lose their temper and do something dumb. Sometimes when they do the right thing, it’s all for really bad reasons.

But not in The Fountainhead. Everyone here is either purely noble or purely a scoundrel, or alternates between the two extremes based on having made some Important Decision. People just take some kind of moral stand and everything they do proceeds logically and unwaveringly from that stand.

Real people don’t work like that. But describing real people would dilute the impact of the message Rand’s trying to send, so that all took a back seat.

An interesting — and kind of unsettling — alternative theory is that Ayn Rand really might not have known that what she was describing was not reality. Perhaps she was herself a cold-blooded, calculating sociopath and she figured everyone was like that, and nobody was ever motivated by anything but personal convictions and trade-offs and compromises didn’t really exist.

On top of all that, there’s a problem with her conception of how human progress works. The message in this book is that all progress everywhere, 100% of the time, is the result of larger-than-life genius individuals working, not for money or status, but for love for the work they’re doing.

Certainly there have been eccentric monomaniacs who picked up the football of human understanding and ran down the field with it. The Isaac Newtons, for instance.

But usually progress is messy. Even messier than how real people work. There’s no one person who’s going to reinvent architecture from the ground up. Most new ideas are bad ones. There’s often a very good reason people keep doing the same thing they’ve always done and there’s no shame in continuing to do it that way. This doesn’t make you a “second-hander”, it makes you not an idiot.

In reality, progress comes from all over the place. Sometimes it’s diligent hard work. Sometimes it’s a moment of inspiration. Sometimes it’s tinkerers discovering something when trying to solve a completely unrelated problem, and their solution is stumbled upon years later after being overlooked by everyone else.

If you’re lucky, you might move the football a couple of inches forward in your life. Most people do nothing with it. Some people inadvertently move it backwards.

Sometimes it actually does work out like in the book. Someone comes along, looks at the problem differently, and points out things that could work better, and the good people of the world celebrate.

Although by celebrating the visionaries, you end up enticing people to the field who are in it for the prestige and not out of love. This is not to say that you can’t contribute to human understanding because you want prestige, or wealth, or to have chicks dig you, but that’s not what the book would have us believe.

That said, I like the message, mostly. There’s a lot to appeal to it. The idea that you have value as a person, that you should follow your vision and not let people’s criticism get to you. However, not caring about criticism doesn’t entail also not having the slightest bit of interest in the fate of anyone but yourself.

I’m sure this is an easy philosophy to hold when, as I noted above, you are clueless about and have no use for 99.999997% of actual people. Personally, I like people and I find that part a bit distasteful.

Even from a utilitarian standpoint, this doesn’t make sense. If not for the Common Man, who, exactly, does Ayn Rand think is going to drive rivets and pour concrete for Howard Roark’s buildings? Some noble genius slumming it because he can’t find a job in this unjust society? (Actually, my answer is “robots will do it”, but I’m 70 years in the future. I don’t think she had automation in mind.)

In typical Rand fashion, there are two — and only two — alternatives for society. Either total individualism and total celebration of genius for its own sake and the average person can go pound sand. Or total collectivism, total celebration of mediocrity and the individual and the genius can go pound sand. I suspect there might be another alternative that doesn’t entail every genius having a moral obligation to be an utter sociopath.

Rand’s philosophy entails a fundamental denial of a huge component of human nature. Pure individualism is just not natural. Humans are social animals. The world we evolved in was very difficult. Ten thousand years ago an individualist, unconcerned with what anyone else thought of them, would have been booted out of the tribe and been eaten by jackals within a day or two.

*****

Any book like this has to be thought of in terms of its place in history, since it’s an element of its time and place.

To some extent I’m probably being too hard on Rand’s characters. The people in the early 20th century had a strength of character that is almost completely missing from people today. The idea of a Howard Roark, making a decision about how he wanted to live his life and living it whatever the consequences, probably wouldn’t have seemed as implausible in her time as it does to me.

(Ironically enough, this kind of internal fortitude was greatly undermined by the self-esteem movement, which started in the 60s and based in large part upon the work of… Ayn Rand. But that’s a whole other blog post.)

At the time of its writing, the ideas of collectivism were on the upswing and the individual was under assault. There really were Ellsworth Tooheys walking the earth, although none of them were quite the cartoonish super-villain depicted there. Read some Upton Sinclair to get a flavor. Just mentally make all the good guys into bad guys and vice versa.

To the extent this book helped fight off the Ellsworth Tooheys of the world, it’s to be commended, though the victory of the individual has been far from an unmitigated boon for mankind. Most people who express their individuality don’t end up unleashing their inner Howard Roark, they just end up being a complete asshole to everyone around them.

Then there’s the damage done to architecture. The premise of the book is that Howard Roark is a genius whose vision was so incisive and clear that he felt no need to be constrained by the conventions of the past. Because he was a genius.

The problem is that, for the next thirty years after this book came out, all the people who passed through Architecture school thought they were the next Howard Roark. Thus anything built before their graduation date was useless garbage to be swept away to make room for their vision.

Unfortunately, most architects are average, and the average architect is not Howard Roark. So every time you pass a mid-60s-era eyesore that was once a majestic art deco building from the 20s, you can thank Ayn Rand. Or — more likely — a parking lot that was once a mid-60s-era eyesore that was once a majestic art deco building from the 20s.

As an aside, the work architects did in the 20s and 30s was often amazing. It was really a high-point in American civilization. Walk around downtown Detroit sometime and you’ll see it. Reading this, I was continually irritated at the suggestion that the only good architect at the time was fictitious.

With all that said, it was interesting and I’m glad I slogged through it. I’d just suggest, if you’re going to read it, to consider it as some variety of morality play. Try not try to make these characters into real people, but more as the personification of Genius or Mediocrity or Power-seeking.

Leaving Detroit

The family has departed Detroit. I was going to add “for good”, but who knows what life is going to bring our way? Although life would have to bring something really shocking and unexpected for that to happen.

The fact is, Detroit is the most depressing place in America. I think everyone already knows this, but let me assure you that Detroit is even more depressing than you think it is. It is fractally depressing. You can find something that seems depressing about the place, focus in on it, and find new contours and textures of hopeless, inconsolable sadness.

*****

The reason Detroit is so depressing is not just because the city is ruined. Although that obviously doesn’t help. It’s the gap between what it was and what it is today, between its past glory and its current state. Ironically enough, I think the fact that the city of Detroit is such a wreck makes it less depressing, since there’s so little left of it that seeing its past greatness takes quite a bit of imagination. The real sadness is in the suburbs.

For me, the most depressing place in Detroit is my old workplace, the GM Technical Center in the suburb of Warren. Not that the place isn’t beautiful. It is beautiful. It’s breathtaking. It really was a joy for me to go to work there.

The Technical Center was designed by the great Eero Saarinen, the guy who designed the St. Louis Arch among dozens of other works of utter genius.

This place was completed in 1958. It’s the prototype for every office park that came after it for the next 50 years. It’s immaculately maintained, with luxurious manicured lawns and a large reflecting pool, and a large stainless steel water tower that I marveled at every time I drove by it.

The part that really made the place was the colored bricks, with one wall being a bright blue or teal or yellow, which made the place come to life.

The place looks like it could be on the cover of a pulp science fiction novel from the mid-20th century. Which made it easy to see how things looked from the perspective of people in the mid-20th century. Like these people. People who dreamed big.

According to my detailed analysis, this country peaked two years after the tech center opened, in 1960, not at all coincidentally the year from the first season of Mad Men. The people who ran things then were giants. They built the most amazing civilization that’s ever existed.

(I have many theories as to why this is. My latest theory has something to do with farming in early 20th century America producing a massive amount of human capital for its participants. Once farming got mechanized, all those people took their problem-solving skills and work ethic to the cities and the factories and did amazing things.)

There was really no challenge these people weren’t willing to throw themselves at. The Reds launch Sputnik? We’ll see you and raise you a trip to the moon. How do you like that, Commies?

They also created the greatest company in the history of all time, whose technical center I was working at. These people hammered sheets of metal into works of art for everyone, that you could climb into and go wherever your imagination took you.

Then at some point, it all fell apart. The company that made this and this started making this. And who can forget this guy?

The company of Alfred Sloan and Harley Earl has become the company of… I was going to name the people currently running the place, but anyone I named would be an utter nonentity in comparison. Those guys were titans with a level of competence that just doesn’t exist in this country any more.

Now all that’s left is the awesome buildings. But when you consider what’s become of the company and the products they’re putting out, it’s like it’s like when a five year old puts on his dad’s suit coat and pretends to be a grown-up. Sorry, son. The clothes don’t make the man, and even if they did, those clothes don’t fit you. At all.

The giants from the mid-20th century, whose energy and industry shook the world, are long gone. In their place is their grandchildren. My generation, whose biggest concern is not with creating things and accomplishing anything but with consuming things and congratulating themselves on social media for being so amazing and special.

Our grandparents gave themselves awards for building the Alaskan Pipeline and designing the 1953 Corvette. My generation got trophies for participation.

What’s even sadder, though, is that everything wrong with Detroit is also wrong with America. It’s just really obvious in Detroit. All Detroit has is the past, so they shine the spotlight on it.

Ultimately, the biggest difference is that in Detroit, the buildings are still there. Detroit is where they they invented sprawl. If they want to build something new, they just move on down the highway.

Everywhere else in America, they paved over the past, bulldozed it to put up a strip mall. So they have the benefit of not knowing what they left behind.

*****

Or the buildings are there for now.

On our way out of town, we drove by a scrap metal dealer. Rusty steel piled in heaps several stories high. And all this scrap was coming from the buildings, from the city itself. The scrappers are dismantling the city of Detroit, piece by piece, and selling it off.

All this activity is driven by the voracious appetite for resources in Asia, to feed the ongoing construction boom. And right now, somewhere in Shanghai, people are driving on an overpass made out of recycled I-beams from a long-shuttered Dodge factory. And someone in Singapore just turned on the lights, with copper wire that was once house plumbing on the west side.

People often ask if I think Detroit will ever come back. I suppose it’s possible the people of who run Detroit will get their act together long enough to create and sustain a renaissance. I’m just wondering how long until there’s nothing left of the place.

Whole 30

So, this month I decided to do Whole 30. It’s the final day and I thought I’d tell you about it.

You can read all about how Whole30 works here. Basically it’s like Paleo Lent. If you’re doing Paleo (which I kind of do), it’s 30 days of focused, determined effort to do everything right.

There’s really not a lot to it. Essentially, you avoid eating the following:

  • Anything sweetened. This includes artificial sweeteners, and natural sweeteners like honey
  • Alcohol
  • Grains – wheat, corn, rice, millet, all that stuff
  • Legumes – beans, peas, peanuts.
  • White potatoes, although sweet potatoes are fine (and I had a lot of them!)
  • Dairy

Also, you’re supposed to avoid processed food in general (assuming you can find anything processed that also doesn’t have anything in the above list). And no making fake Paleo versions of non-Paleo foods. Like muffins made with coconut flour or whatever.

Overall, I did pretty well. If I were grading myself, I’d give me a 97%. The only slip-ups I had were a visit to a barbecue place and a cookout. I didn’t eat anything obviously off the list, like cheesecake, but adopted a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy on the full ingredient list.

A few times I had some sweet potato chips. Kind of violates the spirit of the thing, but I needed something other than popcorn to munch on while watching the thrilling final episodes of Breaking Bad.

This wasn’t nearly as much of a struggle for me as it might be for other people, since I don’t drink and I pretty much eat like this about 70%-80% of the time. Although it was a struggle. As I got started, I realized how much I cheat. Like there are no circumstances where I should ever be eating pizza. And I rarely suggest to everyone that we go get some pizza. Except that if it’s there or someone else suggests it, I would probably eat it. And regret it shortly after that.

So I spent the first two weeks wanting junk food all the time. I would drive by a sports bar and imagine getting an order of those horrible nachos they serve there. It was pure withdrawal pangs, which implies I was eating a lot more junk food that I realized.

By the time I finished Week 2, I stopped craving cheese fries with chili and bacon bits. Granted, I would have preferred cheese fries to whatever sort of rabbit food I was eating, but it wasn’t much of a fight. And by the end of Week 3, I could finally finish a meal without a feeling of emptiness and longing.

Anyway, now that it’s almost over, I can say it’s been a success. I lost 7 lbs as of this morning, and more importantly, I lost most of from the midsection, exactly where I would have liked to lose weight from.

I feel a lot better. I have more energy and I’ve noticed some achy joints that aren’t achy any more. My mood has improved dramatically. This is probably the biggest benefit. I know especially when I eat something with wheat gluten, I get really short-tempered and moody.

If you’re wondering if I’d recommend you try this out yourself, the answer is yes. It’s only 30 days, and while the first week or two seemed to drag on and on, the last week was really easy. You’re almost certainly eating something that’s ruinous to your health and you won’t believe how good you could feel unless you stop eating it.

However, I’m a believer in the Pareto Principle which states that 80% of the effect comes from 20% of the effort. I was thinking about how I might do a Pareto-ized Whole30, where you could reap the most benefit with the least inner turmoil.

Here’s my theory. I would be interested to hear if anyone actually tried these to hear how it worked for them:

Give up all sweetened beverages. Natural or artificial sweeteners. There aren’t many desserts that have more sugar in them than a Big Gulp of Dr. Pepper.

No eating in restaurants. Prepare all your food yourself. There are exceptions of course, but there’s almost nothing you would make for yourself that would be more fattening that anything you can get at a restaurant.

I would guess that if most people in America did those two things, they would probably lose about five pounds in 30 days. Maybe more, depending on how often they eat out or how much Diet Pepsi they drink.

And if you’re already eating pretty healthy, dig through the Whole30 program and pick out a couple of things to try. Personally, I would recommend the alcohol. I’m certainly not one of those types who thinks nobody should ever drink, but alcohol has a ton of calories and you tend to make questionable eating choices when you’ve been drinking. So if you’re going to focus on healthy eating, that’s one way to do it.

And remember that it’s only 30 days, which is way less time than you’d think!